The movie awards season hoopla includes a steady stream of parties, luncheons, awards shows and press events. It’s a part of being out there, and filmmakers with award-worthy films show up, smile, shake hands, answer or deflect the same press questions, stay charming.
Paramount Pictures hosted one of these events, a luncheon at Circo’s in Manhattan last week to celebrate Flight, starring Denzel Washington, who’s getting lots of Oscar buzz for his juiciest role since Training Day.
Although Washington wasn’t at the event, we saw a vaguely familiar face from the movie, a handsome man with reddish hair and beard. It turned out to be actor James Badge Dale, who played the gaunt, dying cancer patient, who bums a cigarette and riffs on the meaning of life, death, God, regrets. Although he disappears in his roles in movies like Shame and The Grey, in person he’s leading man material.
The luncheon was also a chance to meet the gracious director Robert Zemeckis – who has made his first life-action film since Cast Away in 2000 – and the charming screenwriter John Gatins. Both they and Paramount Pictures have plenty to celebrate; in addition to critical acclaim, as of Monday the 31 million dollar film earned nearly 77 million at the box office.
Astonishingly, Dale told me at first the casting directors didn’t want him for the part because he looked too healthy. “I had to beg them to let me read that role,” said the 34-year-old actor.
They also wanted someone younger. “They were going for early 20’s, and I understood that but I just fell in love with the role from the moment I read it.” He pleaded for the chance to do just one take; afterwards, Victoria Burrows, the casting director said, “Okay, now I get why you wanted to read that.”
After showing the audition tape to Zemeckis, who told Dale he looked too healthy, the actor lost 20 pounds in six weeks.
I asked Dale about the scene with Washington and Kelly Reilly in the hospital stairwell and about the rhythm of his rapid-fire speech and whether any of it was improvised. Dale compared the interaction between the actors, who played off of each other, like being in “a good jazz group. They know where they’re going. They’re all playing those same notes, but then you can riff off a little bit,” adding, “but never were we going off page.”
Dale has three blockbusters coming out next summer: The Lone Ranger, World War Z (starring Brad Pitt in the midst of a Zombie pandemic) and Iron Man 3, where Dale plays villain Eric Savin, a soldier in the Marvel comic who was fatally injured and then resurrected.
Being in a “200 million movies with CGI is a weird departure,” Dale said. “I’m more of a ‘put two guys in a room and we’ll just talk to each other’ style of actor. But I had a lot of fun. I learned to ride a horse. I got to beat up grown men in robot suits and shoot zombies with Brad Pitt.”
When I spoke to Zemeckis about Dale he said, “Isn’t he great? I wanted him for the part from the first time I saw his audition.”
Like most movie folk, the director was too superstitious to talk about the Oscar buzz for his star, but enthusiastic about praising Washington’s “gifts,” including his ability to convey so many emotions on his face without saying anything. “He can go down and find that feeling that can be recorded in a way that’s just amazing. It’s so joyful to sit beyond the camera and watch him.”
Zemeckis told me he and Washington spent a lot of time before shooting working and deconstructing his character, but even then he said he was amazed at some of his choices, how they “were always pitch perfect.”
The director described his favorite scene where Washington conveyed all the emotions on his face without speaking, as the scene in the hotel after he meets Don Cheadle’s character and afterwards goes to the bar. “He orders a vodka and just the way he was able to evoke that sense of misery drinking was astonishing because there’s nothing there to say. He orders a drink and then it’s just all internal performance and it’s absolutely beautiful and he’s just so miserable. It was wonderful.”
I told the director that I was surprised Washington, who has never done a nude scene, permitted himself to be shot wearing a backless hospital gown with his naked backside exposed. Washington didn’t balk at the unflattering gown, Zemeckis said.
“He never said, ‘No, I want to do this, I want to wear that.’ And although he was working out in the hotel every day, but in his understanding that the character had to be what it was, I think he let himself be a little bit less than being perfectly buff,” Zemeckis said. “But listen, his performance had zero vanity.”